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United States of Work

Big screens are back, but what about audiences?

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Jun 23, 2021
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The Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee, reopened on April 23, but executive director Stephanie Silverman says the crowds have been "inconsistent." Tom Gatlin courtesy Belcourt Theatre
United States of Work

Big screens are back, but what about audiences?

Kai Ryssdal and Maria Hollenhorst Jun 23, 2021
Heard on:
The Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee, reopened on April 23, but executive director Stephanie Silverman says the crowds have been "inconsistent." Tom Gatlin courtesy Belcourt Theatre
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Across the country, movie theater operators are trying to convince Americans to get off their couches. A coalition of theater chains and industry groups is sponsoring an event called Cinema Week from June 22 to 27 to promote the culture of moviegoing and “put butts in seats.”

Stephanie Silverman, executive director of the nonprofit Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee, and one of the 10 people Marketplace has been following in our series “The United States of Work,” spoke with host Kai Ryssdal about her theater’s reopening. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Kai Ryssdal: So how are you? How’ve you been?

Stephanie Silverman: You know, pretty good, all in all. Still on the COVID roller coaster, but it’s a good, new phase, I think. Starting to work our way back to some sense of normalcy.

Ryssdal: You are open in-person, yes? I can go see a movie next time I come to Nashville?

Silverman: You can every single day of the week. We reopened officially on April 23, so it’s been a few weeks now.

Ryssdal: So, what’s it like on a Friday night? I mean, are there crowds and lines? Are there people eating popcorn and all that good stuff?

Silverman: There are definitely people eating popcorn. Crowds? It’s very inconsistent. I would just say right now, it’s been interesting to us as we watch sort of what people are coming to. You know, we have a sold-out screening of the film “Children of Men” tonight, right in the middle of the week. A movie that has been out in the world for a long time. But we have a speaker and a bunch of other stuff around it, and that sold out for us, is at 50% capacity, of course, right now. But you know, some of the other stuff, some of the new-release stuff that also might have a life on another streaming platform say, it’s slower. So time for some heavy curation to really find the right mix. 

Ryssdal: Yeah. This is a little touchy-feely-er than I usually get, but people missed you, clearly.

Silverman: Yeah, they did, and we missed them. It’s been pretty great to be back, especially to see our regulars [and] to see people just standing in the lobby talking about movies. It’s powerful, and it’s really rewarding, honestly.

Ryssdal: Yeah. And validating, right, in terms of what you do, right? We talked about this before. You’re a mission-driven person in a mission-driven organization. But even a mission-driven organization needs money. Last time we had you on, we talked about the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and how you were kind of hanging fire on that and trying to get some money. Where does that stand?

Silverman: Well, our application did move from “submitted” to “under review” yesterday, which is good. Of course, the applications have been in for over nine weeks now, so we’re still waiting. And this money was legislatively authorized in December. So the gift of the support was really like a light at the end of the tunnel, but the process has been — I will just say “maddening” is the kindest word I can use to describe it right now.

Ryssdal: Do you think you’re out of the woods?

Silverman: You know, I do think we are. I think sort of the rough-sea things ahead of us are just getting people used to being in a space like a theater again. And a part of it, I think, is just like the rapidness of change, so I think we’re just in the relearning process, and theaters are kind of at the end of the tail.

Ryssdal: Yeah. 

Silverman: And then, you know, we are still working through what was a pandemic release model for new movies, which was streaming and maybe in the four theaters that were open in the country.

Ryssdal: Right. So that’s the structural-changes question, right? Because there are clearly structural changes coming to your industry, and how’re you gonna deal with that?

Silverman: Well, we’ve always been pretty good at navigating these things, through the way we program [and] frankly, just by directly marketing movies to audiences in a way that’s different from the larger national model. But I also know that, you know, I think maybe even our distributor friends are going to learn some lessons about just going straight to streaming and how many people actually see that wonderful filmmaker’s movie if they don’t give it the kind of exhibition-first release — whether those windows stay open as long as they used to, I don’t know. But I still really feel that what we do in movie world is something different for that piece of work than what happens when it’s on in TV world in your house.

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